Libraries could be leaders once again

As they try to re-open, public libraries have two big problems and three large advantages.

The first problem, obviously, is that they have to be so safe that people actually want to work in and visit them. I don’t think anyone anywhere has solved that problem yet - but I’m sure there are experts who are trying to find a way. Without the answers, those who open aren’t being brave; they are being stupid and placing other people at risk. It is the absolute and top priority.

The second problem, which the library sector has been reluctant to face for far too long, is that their reputation with the public has declined. They are no longer respected in the way they once were. They have represented themselves too much as caring for the needy, and they have to do more than that. They have to be useful to everyone, otherwise they are not worth the £750 million each year we pay for them. They have to give dignified expert service. Most people don’t want feel they are being treated as poor and needy, even if they are. Their greatest audience lies with people who like and want to read, but at present public libraries only appeal to about 10% of people who read. They need to treble that number - and that won’t happen unless they become serious about acquiring and paying for better collections. They also need to get better at  capturing and responding to data around their performance, otherwise they don’t know where to direct their resources.

These are both hard problems.

The first advantage they have is that there are nearly 3000 public libraries in England. So, if a small group of architects, designers, medical experts and appropriate scientists could find a way to make a public library into a beacon of good health, they could apply the lessons they learn with sensible economy to the entire estate. That’s important because at the moment no one is thinking that way. The work is being done by 150 councils with very little substantial investment in finding the solution. It would be worthwhile.

The second is that public library buildings are mostly quite big. It’s not hard to imagine that most retailers, faced with the problem of making their buildings safe to visit, wish they had more cheap space. Schools and colleges must feel the same. Yet, thanks to some historical quirk of philanthropy, public library buildings are usually very spacious; certainly many times larger than a local book store. If that space could be re-organised, it provides an opportunity to model best practice in terms of public health.

The third lead is, for me, the one with the potential to impact the wider book trade the most. The last few months haven’t just been about the spread of viral infection - they have highlighted a huge issue of our understanding, appreciation, acknowledgement of and writing for the diverse people of our world. This topic is not about whether graduate publishers with ambitions to work in London can be forced to work in Grimsby. Or whether the head count in an office meets some standard of an ethnicity table. It’s about what is written and where it is available to be read. The issue of diversity is much larger than that - and for a long time, public libraries held the answer.

A long while ago, when chain book shops were opening all over England, one of the techniques they used was to go and examine the loan stamps in the front of the books in the local central library. There were always titles, authors, topics and even publishers present of whom bookshops seemed never to have heard. And the numbers of readers were often huge.

Libraries seemed genuinely to have found a way to respond to the real variety of local taste, cultures and interests. They sought out and served. They didn’t preach. They didn’t suffer from the same kind of snobbery that runs through the veins of elite publishers and booksellers. Inclusive not exclusive, they had something to teach.  

Sadly, in the decades since those days, they have lost that magic. It would have needed hard work, experience and commitment to sustain it. Books and publications are a good to way to be diverse.  But the library service is no longer sufficiently interested in books for that to happen. You can’t maintain those standards by outsourcing collection management to a local council, or to a wholesaler. It has to be local to a branch library.

There is no reason why libraries could not get the reputation back. Like many things, if the public believe that is what you do well, it doesn’t take long to revive their faith. Eighty percent of library use is about books and nearly all of that is for printed work. That is a huge strength upon which to build.

If only those in charge would concentrate on the features that forged their reputation in the past, they would get marvellous support, not just from the public, but also from the small and specialised diverse and ethnic publishers to whom they would become once again important. 

The library sector in England is inefficiently spread across 150 councils. The responsibility for local service should be concentrated in the more-empowered hands of the 3000 branch libraries and their managers; but the web operations, systems, negotiation of terms with suppliers and information management should be in one place nationally and operated efficiently. Improvement is desperately needed. It will save a lot of money. We don’t need council management of public libraries any longer: it is too expensive and it hasn’t worked. We need strong library branch management and one supportive national structure.

Tim Coates has been managing director of several book companies in Europe and America including Waterstones. He now advises public and academic libraries around the world. He is also a published author of fiction and non fiction.